Bill Cunningham trendspotting in the streets of New York.
First Thought Films / Zeitgeist Films
By Kate Betts
March 16, 2011

Richard Press’s documentary film Bill Cunningham New York is a charming portrait of the idiosyncratic photographer’s pursuit of fashion, elegance and humanity on the streets of New York. His photos are not “gotcha” celebrity snapshots in the vein of US Weekly. They are documents of fashion’s history. “I’m not interested in celebrities with their free dresses,” Cunningham says in the film. “I’m interested in the clothes.”

More than just Cunningham’s work and life, the film portrays his stubborn independence. In one scene, as Cunningham sits at a desk at The New York Times headquarters, moving photos around on the page, he grumbles to his impatient layout editor, John Kurdewan, that he will be finished “as soon as I get exactly what I want.” And that is the driving force of the photographer’s art and the film’s narrative.

We see Cunningham with his boss, Times honcho Arthur Sulzberger, at a surprise 80th birthday party for the photographer. We see Cunningham’s charm and humility as he accepts France’s highest cultural honor, the officer of the order of Arts and Letters, in broken French. We hear about his working-class Catholic roots and briefly get a glimpse of his emotional life in a moving conversation in the Carnegie Hall studio he occupied for 50 years. But the heart of this film lies in the splice and dice photo montages of Cunningham’s favorite “birds of paradise” – his most flamboyant and reliable subjects – women like Isabella Blow, Carine Roitfeld, Mercedes Bass, and Brooke Astor.

This article was updated at 11:51 a.m. In the latest indication of a growing libertarian wing of the GOP, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution Friday calling for an investigation into the "gross infringement" of Americans' rights by National Security Agency programs that were revealed by Edward Snowden. The resolution also calls on on Republican members of Congress to enact amendments to the Section 215 law that currently allows the spy agency to collect records of almost every domestic telephone call. The amendment should make clear that "blanket surveillance of the Internet activity, phone records and correspondence — electronic, physical, and otherwise — of any person residing in the U.S. is prohibited by law and that violations can be reviewed in adversarial proceedings before a public court," the resolution reads. The measure, the "Resolution to Renounce the National Security Agency's Surveillance Program," passed by an "overwhelming majority" by voice vote, along with resolutions calling for the repeal of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act and reaffirming the party's pro-life stance, according to Reince Priebus, the RNC chairman. Among other points, the resolution declares "the mass collection and retention of personal data is in itself contrary to the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution," a claim embraced by civil libertarians of both parties. The revelation of the NSA programs has caused deepened a rift within the Republican Party between national security hawks and libertarians, but at the meeting, no RNC member rose to speak against the resolution. The full text of the resolution as given to TIME follows below: Resolution to Renounce the National Security Agency's Surveillance Program WHEREAS, the secret surveillance program called PRISM targets, among other things, the surveillance of U.S. citizens on a vast scale and monitors searching habits of virtually every American on the internet; WHEREAS, this dragnet program is, as far as we know, the largest surveillance effort ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens, consisting of the mass acquisition of Americans' call details encompassing all wireless and landline subscribers of the country's three largest phone companies; WHEREAS, every time an American citizen makes a phone call, the NSA gets a record of the location, the number called, the time of the call and the length of the conversation, all of which are an invasion into the personal lives of American citizens that violates the right of free speech and association afforded by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution; WHEREAS, the mass collection and retention of personal data is in itself contrary to the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which guarantees the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, that warrants shall issue only upon probable cause, and generally prevents the American government from issuing modern-day writs of assistance; WHEREAS, unwarranted government surveillance is an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society and this program represents a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy and goes far beyond even the permissive limits set by the Patriot Act; and WHEREAS, Republican House Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, an author of the Patriot Act and Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee at the time of Section 215's passage, called the Section 215 surveillance program "an abuse of that law," writing that, "based on the scope of the released order, both the administration and the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court are relying on an unbounded interpretation of the act that Congress never intended," therefore be it RESOLVED, the Republican National Committee encourages Republican lawmakers to enact legislation to amend Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, the state secrets privilege, and the FISA Amendments Act to make it clear that blanket surveillance of the Internet activity, phone records and correspondence — electronic, physical, and otherwise — of any person residing in the U.S. is prohibited by law and that violations can be reviewed in adversarial proceedings before a public court; RESOLVED, the Republican National Committee encourages Republican lawmakers to call for a special committee to investigate, report, and reveal to the public the extent of this domestic spying and the committee should create specific recommendations for legal and regulatory reform ot end unconstitutional surveillance as well as hold accountable those public officials who are found to be responsible for this unconstitutional surveillance; and RESOLVED, the Republican National Committee encourages Republican lawmakers to immediately take action to halt current unconstitutional surveillance programs and provide a full public accounting of the NSA's data collection programs.
The resolution calls on on Republican members of Congress to enact amendments to the Section 215 law that currently allows the spy agency to collect records of almost every domestic telephone call.

Press goes out of his way – as does Cunningham – to show that the photographer is not an artist in the tradition of masters like Richard Avedon or Horst P Horst. He is a journalist documenting the street. “It’s not photography,” Cunningham says. “I’m just documenting what I see. I let the street speak to me.” One week he’s chasing women wearing all black, the next week he’s on the case of a posse of knee-length skirts. In another shot, we see Cunningham gliding through the gritty city on his 29th Schwinn bicycle (the last 28 were stolen over the years), darting from one society ball to another, greeting Astor as easily as he greets the drag queen Kenny Kenny, tossing a “hello child” to one admirer and chuckling as the choreographer Carole Armitage begs him to come to an upcoming gala benefit.

At parties, women solicit him, pointing out their striking outfits or taking an extra dramatic twirl on the dance floor. In one scene, writer Tom Wolfe explains the relentless jockeying that goes on among New York society wannabes, and in many ways Cunningham’s lens is the witness.

As Harold Koda, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute points out, Cunningham’s photos are a “fascinating manifesto of another era in this city.” From late 1980s stone-washed denim to early ‘90s low-riding rapper jeans, he has seen it all. He is the original trend-spotter, long before the age of digital photos, blogs, tweets and front-row ostentation. Cunningham, unlike many of the more recent fashion parvenus, knows clothes. Of the early work of Japanese designers like Comme des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo, Cunningham draws a correlation to the bag women of New York City during that time. “People in New York looked like the people of medieval Europe,” he exclaims. “The shapes people were wearing!”

Press also gives the viewer a glimpse at the pure joy Cunningham gets from fashion. While examining a photo of socialite Mercedes Bass, he compares her to a John Singer Sargeant portrait. When describing fashion, he says that “it’s the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. But you can’t do away with it – that would be like doing away with civilization.”

One of the more touching moments in the film takes place in the Carnegie Hall studio of Cunningham’s friend and neighbor, Editta Sherman. The two are reminiscing, and Editta brings up Cunningham’s early career as a milliner, creating hats in his 10th floor salon for the likes of Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe, and Joan Crawford under the label “William J.” Cunningham, in his trusty $20 blue French workman’s coat, laughs off the idea that these famous names once darkened his door. “The thing is none of them had any style,” he says, and with a wave of the hand he’s back on the street, where he belongs.

Bill Cunningham New York premeires today at Film Forum, New York and in select theatres nationwide.

On the Street, Cunningham’s video column, can be viewed on the on The New York Times website.

Kate Betts is a contributing editor for TIME Magazine, until recently, the editor of TIME Style & Design, and a former Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar. She has recently published Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style.

Post produced by Yumi Goto

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